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One could argue also that Tory Radio is a community national radio station, catering for a particular community. I accept the point that the hon. Member for Chesterfield made about broadband television and radio not necessarily being the answer to a community’s needs, not least because of the limited broadband spectrum. Last week, an important report was published by the Broadband Stakeholder Group. It pointed out the need to continue to expand bandwidth in this country, and it highlighted social exclusion, whereby many people—particularly those who would benefit from community radio and television—do not have access to the internet.

Before I go in to bat for community radio and television, I shall make what could be construed as constructively critical remarks. It is important for community radio and television to shout about their benefits. In my part of the world, I am lucky enough to have a community television station, SIX TV, but I confess that have no idea how to receive it at home, I have never watched it and I have appeared on it only once in my two years as a Member of Parliament. I suspect that it is not widely known among the community that it seeks to serve. Although I also accept that community television and radio operate on strictly limited budgets, I believe that it would be good if their benefits were more widely known. It would be interesting to know the type of partnerships that community radio and television seek to forge with the organisations that can provide them with publicity, such as local authorities, community groups and hospitals.

The hon. Member for Eccles was quite right to say that when one refers to a community media organisation, there is a balance to strike between media on the one hand and community on the other. I wholly endorse his remarks about the fantastic opportunities that such organisations provide to the local community, particularly the training and focus that they provide to many groups. Those benefits were highlighted in the excellent report, “The Community Radio Sector: Looking to the Future”, from the Minister’s Department. I thoroughly endorse the report, especially its six key conclusions.

The point that I really want to get across is that this country lags behind the rest of Europe, mainly because of the high level of regulation that still surrounds community radio and television. In Holland, Spain and Germany the sector is thriving, and if one goes anywhere in the United States one is likely to have an opportunity to listen to a local community radio station. In this country, however, the sector remains heavily regulated, and anything that we can do to lower the regulatory barrier has to be helpful.

Ofcom recognised that point in its recent consultation document, “The Future of Radio”. Community radio stations are governed by the same public purpose tests as the BBC, and to a lesser extent, the commercial broadcasters. They undergo the test of providing “social gain” with specific requirements to reach people “currently under-served by radio”, and the test of

Ofcom proposes that such purpose tests should be reconsidered, and I agree that they should. To be dynamic, businesses of every kind need to operate in a low regulatory environment, and community radio should not be any different.

I should also like to remove a host of statutory criteria that require Ofcom to consider such factors as
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the extent to which the new stations would broaden choice and cater for the interests of the community, and the access that they would provide to that target audience. There is further scope for deregulation, which would allow businesses to own multiple community licences and make stations more viable as costs fall. Funding should also be reviewed, and I await Ofcom’s recommended limit on the funding that a station can receive from a non-commercial source.

The hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) commented on community television’s difficulties due to spectrum constraints. Until digital switchover is completed, there will be space for only six channels to operate, and despite the hope that more than 30 local television stations would operate, the nature of analogue broadcasting means that conventional TV aerials can pick up only a limited chunk of spectrum. In the overwhelming majority of places, the spectrum is taken up by the five terrestrial television stations, so even if local stations receive licences and broadcast on the available spectrum, it is impossible to pick up that output without specialist equipment. The time frame during which licences were first issued also caused difficulties.

Community TV is, however, set to change radically during the next few years, and the switch to digital will present a huge challenge, so I await with great interest the outcome of the digital dividend review consultation. It is clear that there are advantages and drawbacks both to the interleaved option, which the Community Media Association favours, and to the add/drop method, which my local television station SIX TV favours. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith said that there is a range of completing claims to the vacated spectrum, and I accept that there is potential for market failure if national operators are allowed to block-buy locally auctioned channels. I do not want locally auctioned channels to be block-bought and turned into gaming or shopping channels; there must be a system to ensure that local television continues.

We are all anxious to hear the Minister’s views on this fast developing sector. The challenges that lie ahead are presented by the rapid growth of the internet and by the need for community radio and television stations to raise their profiles. However, hon. Members can work to solve the challenges presented by the level of bureaucracy and by the opportunity to free up spectrum as digital switchover approaches.

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I shall endeavour to answer a number of the points that hon. Members have made in the 10 minutes that remain to me. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) both on securing this debate and on putting forward a robust and elegant case for community radio and television. The work that he and the all-party community media group have done on the issue has been extremely important not only in challenging the Government, but in helping to formulate better policy for now and the future. I am sure that he will keep up his trenchant challenges to the Government and the Opposition, as they try responsibly to get to grips with the challenges and opportunities that community radio and television pose.

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I should put it on the record that I have some experience of community radio, having in the early 1990s been chairman of a student radio station, the precursor to community radio. I therefore have experience not only of trying to put together a radio station, but of fundraising. I should point out, with some care, that it is sometimes all too easy for those who look at community radio stations, but who do not have the experience of running one, to think that what is needed is just for the Government or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to make the money available through some facility.

We had no such money available in the 1990s, but we managed to find it from a number of sources, and there are many sources out there. Hon. Members would be wise to urge those running community radio stations in their constituencies to look to trusts and charities, for example, many of which are expressly able to make grants within their terms of reference. However, that requires long-term planning, an essential ingredient of delivering any public service, which will otherwise simply be short-termism. The real benefits delivered by community radio for social inclusion and cohesion are long term as well as short term.

The past few years have seen a period of unprecedented change in the provision of community media in the UK. At the forefront of that has been the growth of community radio, springing from the statutory provision of the Communications Act 2003. Ofcom, the independent regulator, has to date awarded 122 community radio licences. That figure is set to grow even further over the coming months, in the second round of licence applications. To date, some 60 stations have commenced broadcasting. Community radio stations now serve a wide cross-section of the country. Ofcom has stated that its aim is, in principle, to license stations in the communities that want them; indeed, it restated that in its recent report, “The Future of Radio”. That extensive growth is a major achievement and should not be underestimated in any shape or form. It has happened in a short space of time and surely reaffirms the desire for the so-called third tier of radio broadcasting.

Community radio stations are much more than broadcasters, however. They are already showing the impact that they can have on the communities that they serve, as my hon. Friend so eloquently pointed out. Indeed, at the Community Media Association festival last year, we launched the DCMS’s independent review of the community radio sector. That review assessed the progress of community radio to date, examining social gain in particular. I always enjoy sparring with the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on these occasions, even though I feel that he is the Gyles Brandreth of his generation of the Conservative party, although he is more than simply entertainment value. However, I should point out to him and other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), that social gain is a particularly important element of community radio.

Social gain distinguishes community radio from some of the commercial options. I understand and recognise, in part, the claims that the hon. Member for Wantage made for the need to deregulate and simplify the process, which Ofcom has also recognised. However, it would be a great shame to lose social gain as an important dimension for those radio stations, because that is what really distinguishes them from commercial radio per se.
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Social gain makes community radio essentially different, and that distinction should be maintained.

The review by Ofcom highlighted a number of areas where important work needs to be done, as did our own review, in which we looked at social gain. Our review looked at training and the value of the skills that it can produce for people in local areas. In many cases, training leads to people developing a career in paid radio. Volunteering in community radio stations is important and was highlighted in our report, too. As my hon. Friend and other hon. Members pointed out, volunteering also contributes to building social cohesion.

The Government established a framework for community radio. We were clear that we wanted services that were distinct from the existing radio market. Community radio stations should complement, not compete with, commercial stations. We want to ensure that community radio stations are a voice for the community that is relatively free of commercial pressures. It was for those reasons that the Community Radio Order 2004 included restrictions on the percentage of a station’s revenue that could come from advertising. Ofcom has examined that issue in its report, and we shall give careful consideration to its proposals. Again, however, what essentially matters is maintaining the distinction between community radio and commercial radio. The existing distinctions are there to preserve the characteristics of community radio.

My Department has asked Ofcom to conduct a review of the existing community radio licensing framework. That review will consider the restrictions in the Community Radio Order 2004 and the extent, if any, to which they should be retained or removed. I am sure that Ofcom will want to note not only the comments that I have made, but those of all hon. Members in this debate, in conducting its work. The Government have been clear from the outset that it was never the intention to create a new tier of commercially funded radio, and that must remain.

Over the past four years, my Department has made £500,000 available to the community radio sector. The community radio fund, administered by Ofcom, has already awarded more than £1.2 million to about 50 stations. The intention of the fund is to support stations’ core costs, such as the salaries of station managers and
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fundraisers—the very things for which stations might find it difficult to attract traditional funding.

I am conscious of the time that I have at my disposal. I am happy to write to hon. Members on the specific points that they have raised about community radio, but in the three minutes that are left I should like to turn to commercial television. The next great transformation in the media will undoubtedly be the development of community television and community services of that kind. One of the most important points, of which hon. Members should be aware, is that the technology is changing very fast. In considering the allocation of the spectrum for community television in the years to come, hon. Members should remember that there might be more ways to deliver community television than simply by looking at the current use of the spectrum, and Ofcom is aware of that.

Hon. Members have referred to the difficulties with broadband coverage in some rural areas, but we should remember how broadband has changed and that 10 years ago it was not there at all. Broadband is available in most areas now, and I suspect that in 10 years this debate will sound somewhat historic rather than contemporary. We should exercise a degree of caution in discussing the issue, because we tend to look through the prism of our interpretation of technology now, rather than where it will be in a few years’ time. None the less, the important point that my hon. Friend made is absolutely well taken by me. I reassure him that the safeguards that he seeks are already there, even in Ofcom’s digital dividend review. Indeed, Ofcom has gone further than that. For example, it has looked at packages of the spectrum that could be available within the existing use of the technology and has identified more than 40 packages that might be made available and that could be suitable for use by local television.

However, my hon. Friend should accept my reassurance that the points that he has made about the development of community radio and television are absolutely taken by the Government. We are firmly committed to the development of community radio and television. We shall seek to use the offices of government to encourage proposals for the future. We remain wedded to the technology-neutral sale of the spectrum. However, I reassure him that that will not preclude the use of the spectrum in the future for community television and that we shall look at ways of making that possible.

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Rural Post Office Network

11 am

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the issue of the rural post office network today. As the House will know, the future of rural post offices is vital to rural communities the length and breadth of the United Kingdom—not least in the highlands and islands, where my constituency is. I was fortunate enough to secure a debate on a similar subject in January last year. During that debate, the Minister’s predecessor described rural post offices as “inefficient physical structures”. I am pleased to say that this Minister uses more sympathetic language and makes an effort to listen to the concerns put to him.

Since that last debate, we have learned about the Government’s plans to close 2,500 post offices across the United Kingdom; the axe is expected to fall mainly in rural areas. The proposals have not been greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm in the rural communities that I represent. Put simply, post offices are an essential part of the social and economic fabric of the communities that they serve. They are crucial, too, to the sustainability of those communities. Even the post office that serves only a few dozen people a week during its limited opening hours provides an essential service and often makes the difference, for example, as to whether an elderly person can continue to live in that community. The impact of such post offices on issues of poverty and social exclusion—issues that concern this Government—is enormously significant.

Distances between post offices in the highlands and islands can be enormous; often a sea or a loch are in the way. If one post office closed, it could be next to impossible to access the nearest neighbouring post office, not to mention the environmental impact of the extra miles that Ministers clearly expect people affected by closures to drive if they are to get to that next post office.

It is worth bearing in mind a few facts about the importance of rural post offices. There are nearly 8,000 of them and they help to secure other local businesses. A shop is attached to 75 per cent. of rural post offices, for example. Post offices are frequently the only places in their communities in which local residents, visitors and tourists can access cash, an important resource. Although 60 per cent. of villages have a post office, only 4 per cent. have a bank. I am delighted to welcome the fact that the Royal Bank of Scotland, for example, has recently opened a new branch in Aviemore in my constituency, but many villages in many of the constituencies represented by hon. Members in the Chamber today still do not have banks, and post offices are the only places where people can access financial services.

The importance of small businesses in rural areas has been highlighted by a number of organisations, including the Commission for Rural Communities. Furthermore, the increasing number of people who work from home in rural communities rely on their post offices.

The Government have held a consultation on their plans. If the sample of responses that has been passed to me is any guide, the vast majority of responses to that consultation will have been overwhelmingly negative.

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Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Does my hon. Friend share the scepticism of many about the consultation process? Many of those directly delivering services in our post offices were neither directly consulted by the Department of Trade and Industry nor, originally, sent the consultation document so that their views could be ascertained. They are the people on the front line who have something to contribute, but they were not directly canvassed for their opinions.

Danny Alexander: My hon. Friend has expressed an important concern. Although many hon. Members will themselves have passed the consultation documents on to local postmasters, one would have thought that directly consulting those affected was a Government responsibility.

The Government’s response to the consultation has been delayed—mysteriously, some might say—until after the May elections. Although taking a little more time to consider their response to the consultation may well be wise, there seems to be more than a whiff of politics about the length of the delay. We might hope, but we cannot expect, that the Minister will give his response to the consultation today.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I have presented several petitions to Parliament about the closure of post offices in my constituency, but the Government have not taken the opportunity to respond to them. Effectively, therefore, they have snubbed my constituents and their petitions. Many thousands of my constituents are as deeply concerned as the hon. Gentleman has indicated.

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman’s point helps to illustrate a pattern of behaviour on the part of the Government, and I hope to illustrate it further.

The Minister cannot be expected to tell us today about the response to the consultation. If he did, we would be delighted, but one suspects that the response will not be forthcoming. However, will he at least say whether his views have changed as a result of reading the responses, or should the closure plan be regarded as a done deal and the consultation be seen as little more than window dressing?

Some important questions need to be answered about the Government’s proposals. The excellent Trade and Industry Committee report characterised the figure of 2,500 as “suspiciously round” and wondered whether it stemmed from a proper analysis of the number of post offices needed

That is a good question, and one that I hope the Minister will be able to answer today. If the Government are really intent on putting the Post Office on to a more sustainable footing, we would expect the figure for the proposed closures to be the result of exhaustive analysis, not of simply trying to find a number that would give the Treasury the savings that it was looking for and also avoid the higher numbers in the extreme closure programme forecast by some in advance of the Government announcement.

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